If we do have to time spend substantial time in the metaverse, at least let Matt Pyke of the digital art collective Universal Everything design it. Or perhaps more accurately, be its benign, divine creative force, its bringer of life.
For almost two decades, Pyke has been experimenting with generative design, birthing moving digital creatures. The studio’s digital menagerie really does move, run, dance, parade and prance with an astonishing physicality. It also, unapologetically, delights and entrances.
‘Lifeforms’, the studio's new show in the subterranean 180 The Strand, sees 14 of its digital bestiary within Ab Rogers-designed ‘habitats’. As Pyke says, the show is not a sweeping retrospective – animating new life is just one part of what the studio does – but it’s a comprehensive walkthrough of the different media they work in: video, immersive pieces, interactive pieces, graphic design, architecture and even lenticulars. And it gets to Universal Everything’s essential mission.
Pyke is a techno enthusiast and optimist, a champion of advanced technology as a tool for engineering uplift and enchantment. The show’s meticulous renderings of upright movement, perambulation, sprinting, shape-making, and of material in motion, are the fullest, most convincing expression of that optimism.
‘There is just something fundamentally human about walking,’ Pyke says. ‘It’s a beautiful, natural, graphic way of depicting life. And rather than creating a narrative or some form of storytelling, you have this almost mesmerising banality. The fact that these things walk or run forever suggests infinite energy or an infinite journey and it's somehow utopian.’ As the show’s moving forms – big, hairy, rock or mineral, liquid or gaseous, plant-based and even architectural – miraculously mutate and re-make themselves, they also get to the defining magic of generative technology and design, its ability to create the new and unique all by itself. ‘We think of it as designing the seed,’ Pyke says. ‘As the designer or artist, we define the visual parameters, the range of colours or material or forms. And then within those rules, infinite iterations can be created. It's our way of creating the boundaries of the playground. And then when you press “go”, it generates these forms that interest me and surprise me. It's like letting something out into the wild.’
That impulse to render life forms has always been a driver for Pyke. He studied botanical and technical illustration as well as design and typography before spending a decade at the Sheffield-based studio The Designers Republic, best known for its work with Warp Records and for pioneering games packaging, including for the first iteration of Grand Theft Auto.
In 2004 Pyke, still based in Sheffield, went solo and started looking online for interesting 3D animators and programmers. He found them in Germany, San Francisco, Japan and South America and the studio remains an international digital collective with a core UK-based team working with over 60 architects, engineers, designers, cinematographers, animators, musicians and developers around the world.
From the outset, Pyke was determined on merging graphic design and moving image and quickly became interested in designing his own creative tools rather than using off-the-shelf design software. ‘We wanted to create things that didn't exist and explore the edge of technology,’ he says. That push to experiment quickly attracted commercial clients and Universal Everything’s list of brand collaborators now includes Apple, Google, Hyundai, IBM, MTV, Samsung, Nike and Chanel.
These commercial partnerships often spring from the studio’s self-initiated work and are marked by their longevity and the creative latitude Universal Everything is given. ‘We’ve never felt like we’ve had to compromise in any of the collaborations,’ Pyke says. ‘It’s always been like they were supporting the studio and it’s been very genuine and authentic.’
The studio has also worked with bands including Radiohead, Coldplay and Primal Scream and created digital pieces for exhibitions at MoMA, The Barbican, London’s Science Museum and more. And despite the constant technical innovation, Pyke’s particular take on generative design is so defined, there’s little clear distinction between commercial and non-commercial work. ‘It’s just another expression of working with different contexts, audiences and forms,’ Pyke says.
What comes out in all the studio’s works, though, is a clear sense of play, in their creation and in the way they are experienced. ‘I think playfulness is important,’ says Pyke. ‘You get a brand-new piece of technology and it’s really just a matter of playing with it and seeing what comes out.’ And play, he says, should definitely be part of the viewing experience. ‘I don't really like art shows where it’s whispering in a white cube space, I'd much rather people were shouting and running about.’
Despite that emphasis on play, Pyke and his team aren’t rushing to make every piece interactive. Only two pieces in ‘Lifeforms’ are interactive, and he says they are only interactive for good reason. One of those pieces is Into the Sun, one of three new works in the show. ‘We wanted to create a collective experience,’ Pyke says. ‘The screen displays the sun and plants and they grow in response to the viewer’s positions and movement. And it works with up to four people so you get this collective experience, you create this kind of plant choreography.’
Pyke is more interested in getting ‘beyond the loop’, creating pieces where nothing is ever repeated, ‘like an improvisational jazz gig’. Another new piece, Maison Autonome, Pyke describes as an ‘automated design system’.
‘It's framed as a kind of catwalk show with motion-captured models walking up and down the runway but the costumes or clothing that they wear is generative, infinite combinations of forms and materials. It's so random that you get these enormous models with incredible inflated clothes or spider thin and chrome. It asks who the designer is because they're not designed by anybody apart from the code, really.’
Like much of the studio’s work, Maison Autonome is a dizzying, mesmerising endless parade that taps into Pyke’s essential optimism about human possibility. ‘There’s just that curiosity about what will emerge next out of that kind of unknown randomness.’
Universal Everything, ’Lifeforms’ is at 180 The Strand from 12 October- 18 December 2022.
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